There are two women who have won the Nobel Prize in physics. Most people can name one: Marie Curie. This page is about the other woman, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who is equally awesome and deserves far more recognition.

Goeppert-Mayer was born a professor’s daughter in Poland, and studied at the University of Göttingen, where she got her PhD. She married an American physicist and they moved to the United States, where she was only able to get unofficial or unpaid positions at the universities where her husband worked. Finally, she was able to get a position (still only part time!) at the new Argonne National Laboratory, while her husband was at the University of Chicago.

While at Argonne, she developed the nuclear shell model independently from others working on the same topic. The model explains why certain nuclei appear to be more stable that nuclei that have nearly the same number of nucleons (protons and neutrons). At its core, the theory rests on the Pauli exclusion principle; like electrons in atoms, which form stable shells (e.g. the noble gases), so too, do nucleons in the nucleus. She was heartened to see that another group, led by Hans Jensen, had developed a similar theory, and they wrote a book together, then later won the Nobel together. She later said that winning the prize wasn’t half the fun of actually doing the work.

Goeppert-Mayer is a tribute to the geek spirit: working for the joy of the work. We cannot retroactively pay her what she deserved (for one thing, she died in 1972!), but we can recognize and remember her and her work now.

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